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New therapy may prevent rejection of transplanted organs

organ August 5, 1997
Web posted at: 10:36 p.m. EDT (0236 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Navy researchers said Tuesday they may have found a way to prevent organ-transplant patients from rejecting their new organs -- even if the organs are incompatible with their bodies' systems.

In an advance that could help tens of thousands of people waiting for compatible organ donors, the doctors tested a therapy that seemed to turn off any immune-system attack, even on transplanted organs that were completely mismatched.

Currently, patients in need of a transplant must wait for an organ from a suitably matched donor, which can take months. After a transplant, the patient must take anti-rejection medications for life to prevent the immune system from attacking and destroying the new organ.

Anti-rejection drugs can have unpleasant side effects and increase a patient's susceptibility to infections and tumors. The drugs are expensive, and about 20 percent of patients suffer episodes of acute rejection.

The findings of the team, led by Capt. David Harlan and Lt. Cmdr. Allan Kirk of the U.S. Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, suggest that with the new therapy, the immune system can be "reeducated" to leave the transplanted organ alone.

A summary of the research is published in the August 5 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Monkeys used to test the treatment

The research team -- which worked with transplant surgeon Stuart Knechtle of the University of Wisconsin -- transplanted "very mismatched" kidneys into rhesus monkeys and treated them with the new therapy for 28 days after the operation.

No other therapy and no anti-rejection drugs were used, the Navy said.

"Six months later, the primates are robust and suffering no significant side effects," according to a Pentagon report.

It said the short course of the therapy appeared to be long-lasting, precluding the need for daily medication to prevent organ rejection.

The therapy apparently prevented the immune system from rejecting the organ by controlling the responses of T-cells, which help fight immunities.

The researchers believe their therapy also may help treat ailments such as hay fever, multiple sclerosis and lupus.

Findings could be 'very significant'

Joel Newman of the United Network for Organ Sharing, the Richmond, Virginia-based national organ allocation center, said any advance that cut or eliminated the need for immuno-suppressant drugs would be "very significant" for the tens of thousands of people living with transplanted organs.

The UNOS network, which tracks U.S. transplant data, said almost 4,000 Americans died in 1996 waiting for a compatible donor. As of July 30, there were more than 53,000 people awaiting transplants, mostly for a kidneys, liver or heart.

Military Affairs Producer Chris Plante and Reuters contributed to this report.

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